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The stars of the 70s and 80s that spent their later years with the Royals

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A look at aging stars with the Royals

With the adoption of the designated hitter by the American League in 1973 and the advent of free agency in 1975, many veteran players looked to extend their careers in the American League. The Royals were active in this market as they were constantly looking for veteran leadership or to add another bat or arm to their young, contending team. Often, the signings led to some positive publicity, but rarely worked out on the field.

I went back over the years from 1973 to 1985 and highlighted the significant free agent signings and trades involving aging former stars that spent the twilight of their career with the Royals.

Rick Reichardt

The Royals signed Reichardt as a free ggent on July 10, 1973 after he was released by the Chicago White Sox. Reichardt had been a terrific athlete at the University of Wisconsin, having led the Big Ten in batting on two occasions and starring as a fullback on the Badgers 1962 Rose Bowl team. He was such a highly-rated baseball player that a bidding war broke out, which resulted in him signing with the Los Angeles Angels for $200,000 (the bidding war ultimately helped lead to a Major League amateur draft).

By the time the Royals signed him, Reichardt was 30 years old and his best days were in the rear-view mirror. Reichardt appeared in 42 games for Kansas City, playing all three outfield positions and seeing time as the designated hitter. He hit .227/.284/.367 with 3 home runs and 17 RBI. In his 11-year career, in which he played for four teams, Reichardt hit .261/.326/.414 with 116 home runs and 445 RBI. Reichardt was a 14 WAR player for his career and was released by Kansas City on April 11, 1974.

Vada Pinson

The Royals didn’t let Reichardt’s flameout deter them, as they acquired one of their biggest name stars, Pinson, from the California Angels for pitcher Barry Raziano on February 23, 1974. Pinson spent the final two seasons of his illustrious career in Kansas City, logging time at all three outfield positions along with first base and designated hitter. Vada played 218 games for the Royals, hitting .252/.284/.357 with 10 home runs and 62 RBI.

In his 18-year career, Pinson hit .286/.327/.442 with 2,757 hits, 256 home runs and 1,169 RBI. He spent time with five teams but is mostly remembered for his 11 seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, where he led the National League in hits, doubles and triples on two occasions. He also had over 200 hits in four seasons, was a two-time All Star, won a Gold Glove and garnered MVP votes in five seasons. Pinson was a 54 WAR player, well liked by his teammates and opponents.

Pinson is one of only two players in history to collect 2,700 hits, 450 doubles, 250 home runs, 100 triples and 300 steals, the other being Hall of Famer Willie Mays. Pinson never got much traction for the Hall of Fame, topping out at 16% of the vote in 1988 and remains to this day one of the premier players not enshrined in Cooperstown.

Early in his career, Pinson was often mistaken as a Latin American player. He related a humorous incident that occurred during his rookie season involving the colorful Jimmy Dykes, the first base coach of the Reds.

“I was called up by the Reds during the 1958 season and every time I would reach first base, Jimmy would talk to me in broken English and give me a bunch of hand signals. I thought maybe he didn’t speak English, so I let it go. Then one day I overheard him talking to a group of players and I must have given him a puzzled look. He started motioning to me and began saying “comprende?” Finally, I said, “Mr. Dykes, you must have me wrong. I was born in Memphis, Tennessee and raised in Oakland, California.” All he could do was look at me for a minute and then walked off. It must have been two weeks before he spoke to me again!” Pinson died on October 21, 1995 at the young age of 57.

Orlando Cepeda

The Baby Bull!! Cha Cha!! Cepeda was the second big name player acquired by the Royals, when they signed him as a free agent on August 6, 1974, following his release by the Boston Red Sox. The Royals were hoping Cepeda could find lightning in a bottle one last time and help the Royals catch the Oakland A’s in the stretch drive of the 1974 season. The early results were promising, as Cepeda had 12 RBI in his first six games, but eventually Father Time reminded Orlando that he was 36 years old and had two bum knees. Cepeda played 33 games as the designated hitter for Kansas City, hitting .215/.282/.290 with one home run and 18 RBI. Cepeda was the highest-paid Royal in 1974, drawing a $75,000 annual salary.

In his 17-year career, in which he played for six teams, Cepeda hit .297/.350/.499 with 2,351 hits, 379 home runs and 1,365 RBI. He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1958, was a seven-time All Star, received MVP votes in eight seasons and won the National League MVP award in 1967. He was a 50 WAR player in his career and was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1999. The Royals released him on September 27, 1974.

Harmon Killebrew

The 39-year-old slugger was signed by the Royals as a free agent on January 24th, 1975 after his release from the Minnesota Twins. I must admit, even I was somewhat excited about the addition of “Killer”. Killebrew had been terrorizing American League pitchers for two decades with his prodigious home run power. The thought of him in a lineup with George Brett, Hal McRae, Amos Otis and John Mayberry was tantalizing. Alas, it was not to be.

In real life, a 39-year old man is still young. In baseball, a 39-year-old man is ancient. Killebrew was ancient and then some. To say Harmon was slow afoot would be an understatement. He did play in 106 games for the Royals, all but six at DH, but only hit .199/.317/.375 with 14 home runs and 44 RBI.

The Royals released him on November 10th, 1975 ending a glorious 22-year career that saw Killebrew hit .256/.376/.509 with 573 career home runs and 1,584 RBI. Killebrew led the American League in home runs six times, RBI three times and walks on four occasions. He was an 11-time All Star and received MVP votes in eleven seasons, winning the award in 1969. He made his professional debut in 1954 as an 18-year-old with the old Washington Senators and ended his career as a 60 WAR player. He was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1984.

The next time you visit the Mall of America (which stands on the site of the former Metropolitan Stadium) look for the homeplate in the amusement park section. Then look out to where left-field would have been. High up on a blank wall, stands a plaque that marks the spot where one of Killebrew’s most prodigious home runs landed – a 522-foot blast off of the Angels Lew Burdette in 1967, which landed in the second deck of the old ballpark. Killebrew, one of the nicest ballplayers who ever played the game, died on May 17, 2011 at the age of 74.

Ray Sadecki

Sadecki, a Kansas City native, was acquired in a trade with the Atlanta Braves on September 4, 1975. His career as a Royal was short, only eight appearances for 7 23 innings. He was released by the Royals on May 5, 1976. For his career, Sadecki played for six teams in an 18-year career, going 135-131 in 563 games, pitching over 2,500 innings with a 3.78 ERA. He was a 19 WAR player.

Tommy Davis

Davis was a player whose time in Kansas City was so brief that many forget he was even a Royal. Davis was purchased from the Angels on September 20, 1976 as the Royals were looking for a veteran bat to help them in the stretch drive. Davis was 37when Kansas City acquired him, and much like Cepeda and Killebrew, he had nothing left in the tank. He appeared in eight games for the Royals, collecting five hits (all singles) in 19 at bats with no RBI. He was released by Kansas City on January 17, 1977.

Davis played for ten teams in his 18-year career, and when he was young, man oh man, could he hit. He led the National League in batting twice and hits and RBI once. He was a two-time All Star and received MVP votes in six seasons. He ended his career at .294/.329/.405 with 2,121 hits. His 1962 season as a 23-year-old with the Dodgers remains one of the all-time great baseball seasons. Davis hit .346/.374/.535 with 230 hits and 153 RBI. He finished third in the MVP race that year behind Maury Wills, who had 104 stolen bases, and Willie Mays, who put together a 10.5 WAR season.

After the Cepeda-Killebrew-Davis flameouts, the Royals brass took a break from signing over the hill vets. In fact, they didn’t dip their toes in that water again until June of 1979, nearly a three-year break. The lure of aging sluggers is almost always Fool’s Gold and the Royals were unable to resist.

George Scott

The Royals acquired “Boomer” from the Red Sox on June 13, 1979 for outfielder Tom Poquette, to shore up the first base position, which had been a void since John Mayberry was exiled to Toronto in 1978. In those days, Scott wore a garish necklace of unknown origin. When asked what was on the necklace, Scott would reply with a very serious face, “second basemen’s teeth.” Nobody argued with him.

Unfortunately, Boomer didn’t see many second basemen in his time with the Royals. In 44 games, he hit .267 with one home run and 20 RBI. Kansas City gave him his release on August 17th, 1979. Scott played for four teams in a 14-year career, which saw him hit .268/.333/.435 with 271 home runs and 1,051 RBI. He was a three-time All Star, won eight Gold Gloves and received MVP votes in seven seasons. He was a 36 WAR player and although listed at 6’2 and 200 pounds, he always seemed bigger.

Ken Brett

Ken Brett was signed as a free agent on August 11, 1980, after being released by the Dodgers earlier in the spring. Brett was brought in not only to give the Royals another left handed bullpen arm, but also to try and help his little brother manage the media and surrounding pressures of trying to hit .400. Brett pitched in 30 games for the Royals during the 1980 and 1981 seasons, primarily in middle relief. The Royals granted him his release on November 25th, 1981.

Brett pitched (and hit) for ten teams in a 14-year career in which he was a 16 WAR player. He made his Major League debut as an 18-year-old with the Red Sox in 1967 and pitched in two games in the 1967 World Series. Before arm troubles derailed a promising career, Brett was a hard throwing left-hander who could also hit. Though used primarily as a pitcher, where he complied an 83-85 career mark, Brett hit .262/.291/.406 over 346 at bats with ten home runs.

I can think of several Royals shortstops who never hit that well. Many baseball observers thought that Ken was the most talented of the Brett boys and the most likely to have made it to Cooperstown. Brett always had a mischievous smile on his face and always looked to be enjoying the ride. Unfortunately, cancer claimed him way too soon in November of 2003 at the age of 55.

Jose Cardenal

August of 1980 was a busy month for the Royals, as they pushed for the American League West pennant. On August 21st, they signed outfielder Cardenal, who had been released by the Mets a week earlier. Cardenal appeared in 25 games for the Royals, and acquitted himself well, hitting .340/.377/.377 with 18 hits in 53 at bats. He also played in four World Series games for the Royals, against his former team, the Phillies. Despite his success, the Royals released Cardenal on November 13th, 1980. Cardenal played for nine teams in an 18-year career, which saw him hit .275/.333/.395 with 138 home runs, 775 RBI and 329 stolen bases along with 1,913 hits, good for 21 WAR.

Lee May

The Royals continued to search for a replacement for John Mayberry by signing May, a slugging first baseman who played a significant role on the 1960s Cincinnati Reds and the stalwart Baltimore Orioles teams of the mid 1970s. Kansas City signed him as a free agent on December 9th, 1980. May saw action in 68 games during the 1981 and 1982 seasons, at first base and designated hitter and like Cardenal, he hit well, slashing a .301/.370/.445 line with 3 home runs and 20 RBI.

May played with four teams in an 18-year career that saw him hit .267/.313/.459 with 354 home runs, 1,244 RBI and 2,031 hits. May was a three-time All Star and received MVP votes in six seasons, ending his career as a 27 WAR player.

Cesar Geronimo

Geronimo, a slick fielding center fielder, who possessed one of the all-time great baseball names, was acquired from the Cincinnati Reds on January 21st, 1981 for utility infielder German Barranca. Geronimo appeared in 150 games over three seasons for the Royals (1981-82-83), batting .242/.289/.361 with 6 home runs and 40 RBI. The versatile Geronimo played all three outfield positions plus some time at designated hitter. He appeared in one game of the 1981 playoff series against Oakland.

Geronimo played for three teams in his 15-year career but is best remembered for the nine years he spent patrolling centerfield for Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine dynasty. For his career, he hit .258/.325/.368 with 977 hits. He won four consecutive Gold Gloves (1974-77) and was a 13 WAR player.

Jerry Grote

Grote, who retired from baseball after the 1978 season, was lured out of retirement by the Royals, who were experiencing a shortage of catchers, and signed as a free agent on April 7th, 1981. Grote appeared in 22 games for the Royals and considering that he hadn’t swung a bat in two seasons, performed well, hitting .304/.344/.446 with one home run and nine RBI. In a game against Seattle, on June 3, 1981, Grote went three for four with a grand slam and a then Royals club record seven RBI. Just to show the Mariners he wasn’t all bat, he also stole a base.

Grote played for four teams in his 16-year career, hitting .252/.316/.326 with 1,092 hits but only thirty-nine career home runs. He was a two-time All Star and a 15 WAR player, primarily as a catcher, but also saw spot duty at third base. He was given his release by the Royals on September 1, 1981.

Grant Jackson

The Royals acquired left handed pitcher Jackson from the Montreal Expos for first baseman Ken Phelps on January 14, 1982. He appeared in 20 games for Kansas City, going 3-1 with a 5.17 ERA before the Royals released him on July 9, 1982.

In his career, the hard throwing lefty played for six teams over 18 seasons, compiling an 86-75 record and 79 saves. He was a 14 WAR pitcher and is best remembered by Royals fans as the pitcher who gave up George Brett’s booming three-run home run in the top of the eighth inning of Game 6 of the 1976 ALCS, which temporarily knotted the Royals and the Yankees at six all, before Chris Chambliss broke Royal fans hearts all over the Midwest.

Vida Blue

Vida Blue. The name itself sounds like a sizzling fastball. Blue was acquired in a multi-player trade with the San Francisco Giants on March 30, 1982, with a young pitcher named Atlee Hammaker being the key asset given up by the Royals. It was a homecoming of sorts for Blue, who was originally drafted by the Kansas City Athletics, before Charlie O. Finley spirited the A’s to the greener pastures of Oakland. Blue pitched a total of fifty games for Kansas City over the 1982 and 1983 seasons, ending with a record of 13-17 and a 4.49 ERA. The Royals released Blue on August 5, 1983. Blue was later arrested (along with three other Royals) and served a short jail stint for cocaine possession.

Blue burst onto the scene as a fire balling 21-year-old in 1971, scorching the American League with a 24-8 record and a 1.82 ERA. He played for four teams in a 17-year career, which saw him compile a 209-161 record and a 3.27 career ERA. He was a six-time All Star and collected MVP votes in four seasons and Cy Young votes in five seasons. He won both the Cy Young and the league’s MVP with that spectacular 1971 campaign. Blue won more than 20 games in a season three times in his career and was a 45 WAR player.

Gaylord Perry

What’s the first thing you think of when you hear the name Gaylord Perry? Spitball, right? The aging right-hander was signed by the Royals as a free agent on July 6, 1983 and appeared in 14 games with Kansas City going 4-4 with a 4.27 ERA over 84 innings. Perry retired after the 1983 season, but not before driving opponents and managers batty with the idea that he was loading up the ball. Perry had admitted to occasionally using K-Y Jelly, Vaseline, saliva, fishing-line wax, resin, sweat and dirt to help his sinkerball dance. He also would go through an elaborate pre-pitch ritual of touching his cap and various parts of his uniform.

His former catcher, Dave Duncan, said that Perry had a terrific sinker and kept up with the fidgeting act just to throw off the batters’ concentration. Perry pitched for eight teams in a brilliant 22-year career, which saw him win 314 games against 265 losses. He was a five time All Star and received MVP votes in six seasons. His 3,524 strikeouts still rank eighth all time and he was the first pitcher to win the Cy Young in both leagues, with the Cleveland Indians in 1972 and the San Diego Padres in 1978. He was a 90 WAR player and was elected to the baseball Hall of Fame in 1991.

Steve Renko

Renko was a Kansas City native who was a three-sport athlete at the University of Kansas (football, basketball and baseball). The Royals signed him as a free agent on February 9th, 1983, hoping there was something left in his right arm. Renko appeared in 25 games for the Royals, going 6-11 with a 4.30 ERA. He retired from baseball after the 1983 season.

Renko pitched for seven teams in a 15-year career, compiling a 134-146 record with a 3.99 ERA. He was a 24 WAR player who curiously never made an All-Star team or even received Cy Young votes. His best season came in 1973 with Montreal when he posted a 15-11 mark with a 2.81 ERA over 249 innings.

Bucky Dent

Dent was signed by Kansas City as a free agent on August 16th, 1984 and only appeared in eleven games for the Royals, going three for nine at the plate with one RBI, while seeing duty at shortstop and third base. Dent was released on October 10th, 1984 and retired from baseball.

Most think of Dent as a Yankee, though he broke in with the White Sox in 1973. He finished second in the 1974 Rookie of the Year race and was a three-time All Star. He played for four teams over a 12-year career, accumulating 1,114 hits while batting .247/.297/.321. Dent ended his career as a 17 WAR player and is best remembered for his home run over the Green monster which helped the Yankees beat Boston in a one game playoff to capture the 1977 American League East pennant.

Jim Sundberg

Sundberg was a fine catcher who was acquired from the Milwaukee Brewers as part of a four-team trade on January 18th, 1985. Sundberg played two seasons in Kansas City, appearing in 255 games and batting .227/.305/.349 with twenty-two home runs and seventy-seven RBI. He was an integral part of the 1985 World Series Championship team, helping manage the Royals young pitching staff. He appeared in all seven games of the 1985 World Series and hit .250 against St. Louis.

Sundberg played for four teams in his 16-year career. He was a three-time All Star, won six Gold Gloves, collected 1,493 hits and was a 41 WAR player.

While it was fun to see some of these players in Royal blue, very few had production that was significant. None of these acquisitions made an impact in the same vein as a Johnny Cueto or Ben Zobrist. Fortunately, with most of them, the only loss was money and possibly blocking a younger talent (Al Cowens comes to mind). The biggest talent loss given up in a trade was Atlee Hammaker, who put together a couple of nice seasons in 1982 and 1983 and who pitched significant innings for the Giants from 1982 through the 1988 season.

The lesson for any General Manager is - don’t waste your teams valuable cash signing an aging player. It seems that age 32 is the magic age when a player’s performance starts to drop, especially with hitters, and unless the player is juicing, performance rarely recovers. There are exceptions, especially with pitchers. Prime examples would be Jamie Moyer and Bartolo Colon. As a fan, I would much prefer to see the Royals call up and play the younger talent, the Ryan O’Hearn, Jorge Lopez, Hunter Dozier and Frank Schwindels of the system.